From meagre beginnings the Cistercian Abbeys amassed great wealth and sculpted the landscapes around them.
Our tour, The Cistercian Impact, takes you to the great abbeys of Fountains, Rievaulx and Jervaulx, and back to a world of White Monks and lay brothers, and the medieval communities they shaped.
The Cistercian Order, which followed the austere spiritual teachings of St. Bernard of Clairvaux, began in France and had established itself in the south of England in the late 1120s.
The monks’ pious lifesyle was admired by the Lord of Helmsley, who controlled the north of England, and he gifted the Order low value moorland in Yorkshire to settle on.
The first Cistercian Abbey in North Yorkshire was Rievaulx, built in 1132.
Founded by Abbot William and then led by Abbot Aelred, who would be sainted after his death, the Abbey grew around a vision of love and inclusion.
The monks’ dedication to God required long periods of silent reflection and a meagre diet, so they brought in a large group of lay brothers to farm the land and maintain the abbey – this is the origin of ‘labourers’.
By the 1160s there were 150 monks and 400 lay brothers at the abbey, making Rievaulx the centre of monasticism in Britain at the time.
The Abbey prospered and by the next century Rievaulx had transformed the surrounding moorland into a massive farm with more than 12,000 sheep.
The monks continued to innovate, and by the 1500s Rievaulx was at the centre of the iron industry with its own forges and managed woodlands to provide a constant supply of charcoal.
Rievaulx Abbey had had a profound effect on the landscape around it.
Fountains Abbey surpassed even the wealth of Rievaulx.
The Abbey was founded by a group of 13 disillusioned monks who had left the rowdy Benedictine scene of York and settled in the North Yorkshire countryside to live a simpler life.
Their dedication gained them acceptance into the Cistercian Order. As their devotion to God grew and they begain wearing the wool shirts that gave the Cistercian's their White Monks moniker, they followed the example of Rievaulx to bring in a workforce of lay brothers to farm, mine lead, quarry stone and mill grain.
The Abbey prospered, bought vast swathes of land, added its own watermill and tannery, and built bases across the region for trading grain.
Today, the remains of Fountains Abbey are the largest monastic ruins in the UK, and they give some indication as to the sheer scale of the building. Visitors can see the abbey church, nave and windows, which still stand at almost their full height, and wander through the 300ft long cellarium that was once used to store the Abbey’s food, ale and wines.
The third of North Yorkshire’s great Cistercian monuments is Jervaulx Abbey, founded in 1156 by Cistercian monks who had come from the Roquefort region of France.
They first settled in nearby Fors, but the land was terrible for farming and after nearly starving in their first year, they moved to a new location at Jervaulx, in Wensleydale.
The monks had brought with them a recipe for making cheese using sheep’s milk, and it was from this that Wensleydale’s famous cheese originated.
As its wealth grew, the order added a new church and monastery and acquired much of the land in the valley, building a reputation for breeding horses which has been maintained in the region to this day.
The end of each of these abbeys came during Henry VIII’s Dissolution of the Monasteries in the mid 1500s. Monks who resisted the King could be imprisoned, tortured or killed, and so resistance to the process melted away.
The monasteries themselves were dismantled, often brick-by-brick, with materials of value stripped out and plundered.
Whilst the age of the great Cistercian Abbeys was over, their influence lives on.
WANT TO KNOW MORE? The Cistercian Impact, with Dr Emma Wells, is a three-night small-group tour with departure dates in 2021 and 2022.
See the tour details here